deep dives

A Love Letter to the Pet Shop Boys, the Best British Band Ever

With their next album less than a month away, we reflect on why Neil and Chris are still so exciting.

by Josh Baines
Mar 9 2016, 2:55pm

Images from Pet Shop Boys' Facebook.

Invariably, at some point in your life, if your life is as dull as mine, you'll find yourself sat in a pub on a Tuesday night, cradling your second pint of nearly-off lager, waiting for a bowl of microwave chips to be dropped down on the sticky table in front of you, and you might, in an attempt to pierce the conversational membrane, ask the following question: who are the best British band ever? Silence will follow as your mate, or mates, pretend they're sat thinking about it. They'll say nothing, eyes boring into the tatty paper menu in front of them, now sopping wet and torn. It'll be left to you to wave the flag for halfway decent pub chat. You'll look them in the eyes and you'll say, "I'll tell you who it is. I'll tell you who the best British band ever is. The best British band ever is the Pet Shop Boys." Your friends'll murmur and you'll start a soliloquy that goes on all night long. And you'll be right. Because it's true. The Pet Shop Boys really are the best British band ever.

Your dad's overheard the conversation in the pub and told me I'm wrong. He says it's the Clash who're the best British band ever. He's blathering on about the importance of punk in Thatcher's Britain and there's tartare sauce running down his chin. Your brother chimes in, telling me that it's not the Clash and it's certainly not the Pet Shop Boys, but Oasis who are the best of all. He's barged out of the way by his best mate who consigns the trio above into history's gaping bin and proudly bangs the drum for the Beatles. The thing is, they're all wrong. Massively wrong. Sure, "And Your Bird Can Sing" is a half-decent tune, and yeah, after six tinnies "Cigarettes and Alcohol" isn't too bad, and OK, OK, OK, I liked the episode of Daria that ended with "Lost in the Supermarket," but they're all completely, massively, totally wrong. And, soon enough, I'll tell you why.

The Pet Shop Boys, Neil and Chris, never Chris and Neil, planted themselves in our collective cultural conscience on Thursday the 5th of December 1985, and thirty years on they're still there. That night marked the first of their 58 appearances on Top of the Pops, and they debuted with one of the all time great debut singles: "West End Girls". Strictly speaking, the version a nation watched over their spam and chips that night wasn't the group's official debut—that honour goes to the Bobby O produced take on "West End Girls"—but it might as well have been. A truly perfect single was paired with a truly perfect performance, and an institution was born.

The Pet Shop Boys sound like the best night out you've ever had. The Pet Shop Boys sound like the worst night out you've ever had. The Pet Shop Boys sound like an impossibly unreal Hollywood melodrama. The Pet Shop Boys sound like a bedsit drama. The Pet Shop Boys sound like escapism in its purest form. The Pet Shop Boys sound like being stuck in the same cycle of shit for the rest of your joyless life.

It's 2 in the morning. I'm in Barcelona. I'm happier than I've ever been before or since. My friends and I are a few rows from the front of the main stage at a festival and every so often I crane my neck and look back at the seemingly endless wash and wave of bodies that drift into the horizon. City lights flicker in the distance, and my jaw hurts from smiling. I'm watching the Pet Shop Boys at Primavera. I'm happier than I've ever been before or since.

Perfection is: "Love Comes Quickly," "What Have I Done to Deserve This," "Suburbia," "Domino Dancing," "I Want a Dog," "Heart," "Being Boring," "Left to my Own Devices," "Rent," "It's a Sin," "Always On My Mind," "Go West," "Did You See Me Coming?" "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk," "The Truck Driver and His Mate," "It's Alright".

What, then, makes the Pet Shop Boys brilliant? What is it about them that means that we actually want to listen to their new record, Super, rather than recoil with horror like we do when we're flicking through Mojo at a train station and notice that The Rolling Stones or Echo and the Bunnymen or Embrace have a new album out? Why do I find myself going back to Introspective or Actually so often?

Here's why.

The Pet Shop Boys are exactly what a musical group—as a theory, as a concept we devised in about 1950, as an idea that went on to become as important to our conception of what culture is as canvas and brush—should be. That is, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe exist slightly above the humdrum of reality. Theirs is a world of props and costume changes, elaborate staging and arena tours. It's a world where you stride on stage like Augustus in his prime to the sounds of "Viva La Vida" by Coldplay without any hint of irony, a world where part of your career is oft-referred to as "the Imperial phase" with a completely straight face. The PSBs don't want to come across as "just normal blokes" because they aren't "just normal blokes."

Instead, they're a throwback to an age when fame, or more accurately, celebrity, conferred with it a sense of remove, a feeling of distance. Before we were able to expel every single fucking thing in our heads onto a digital landscape that never, ever, ever stops marching forwards, artists seemed different, somehow not at-one with the rest of us. They created and we appreciated. The Pet Shop Boys still feel slightly unreachable, as if watching the landscape they helped shaped from on high.

Over the course of 30 years, two lads who met in an electronics shop on Kings Road have worked through a variety of sonic guises. There's the incredibly early material with Bobby O, which is all Hi-NRG sleaze and gay-club bombast, and the electronic ebullience of later records like the Stuart Price produced Electric. There's the Radio 2 friendly pristine pop of Yes and the synthpop sentimentality of Release. Loving the Pet Shop Boys means loving Village People-esque stompers like "New York City Boy" and the eurodisco sway of "Red Letter Day" in equal amounts. Well, nearly. Any band with 12 studio albums, six best-of compilations, a quartet of remix records, three soundtracks, two b-sides collections, a pair of live ones, and 60 singles are bound to have a few duds in the back catalogue. Still, they've got a stronger hit to shit ratio than any other band this shitty grey nation's ever birthed. Yep, that's right, even Hard Fi and Bromhead's Jacket pale in comparison.

The Pet Shop Boys aesthetic sits somewhere between the plastic hedonism of italo disco, the high camp of Broadway, and the glum resignation of Coronation Street. A large part of this is down to strangely perfect, perfectly strange relationship that the lads have. Aside from the occasional anomaly—"Paninaro" for example—Neil handles the vocals and Chris gets on with whatever it is that Chris does: playing the keyboards, wearing silly hats, that sort of thing. The intentionally created divide between the two, which plays itself out night after night on their massive, globetrotting tours, is still, somehow, thirty years on, genuinely exciting, giving their records an amazing kind of frisson. All the while, though, there's a palpable sense of sadness around them.

It's that sadness, that faintly dismal air of failure that they wrap around their Oswald Boetang suits, worn like Issey Miyake aftershave, that attracted me and countless others to the PSBs. Songs like their absolutely gargantuan cover of "Always on my Mind," a song that sounds like a victory lap around heaven, or the OTT ode to the relationship between homosexuality and a Catholic upbringing that is "It's a Sin,"—a Pedro Almodovar film set in a dorm room if there ever was one—are both triumphant and defeated. Their oeuvre positively drips with a feeling of failure. For all the bluster and arpeggiated basslines, there's an inescapable feeling of melancholy around them. It's like eating chips in the car at the seaside, or seeing your favourite DJ at your favourite club on your own.

There's also something endearingly naff about the Boys. They inhabit a strange sphere where everything still feels like the 90s of the future that the designers of the 80s imagined. Listening to them, and watching them, feels comforting in the same way that, I don't know, flicking through old Beano annuals or watching adverts for discontinued sausage ranges does. That naffness feels, in a way, very, very British.

And it's that potent combination of naffness, sadness, and glamour that makes them both so brilliant and so British. In another life I noted that Britain "is silent couples sat in central London branches of Burger King; rain-lashed walks down out of season promenades; Sunday night National Express coach journeys; Orange Wednesdays; Gillette Soccer Saturday; Mars Bars; Sounds of the Sixties on Radio 2; brown settees; net curtains; dog shit; Traffic Cops; midnight mass on Christmas Eve; self-perpetuated mild melancholy; Adrian Mole; grain silos; conkers; rail replacement bus services; six cans for a fiver; sausage, chips and beans; Television X; National Trust property tea rooms; Dani Behr." And that's all true. That's what we are, deep down: a nation of repressed romantics, sublimating every desire into a grey pool of nothingness. We don't want to be seen as anything we're not. We resolutely don't want to put ourselves in a position where someone could look at us and tut internally, thinking, "that's a person with ideas above their station."

Neil and Chris do have ideas above their station. The glamour, exoticism and showmanship that makes seeing them live so exciting, so incredible, is tinged with the unshakeable feeling that it's all an act. I mean, of course it is, of course it's an act, but it's not 'just' a theatrical display put on for the hordes of ticket-buyers' pleasure. It goes further than that. It's two men born and raised in a country that doesn't do those things, trying to do them.

They're unabashed romantics, unashamed aesthetes, and perfect proof that British music at its best isn't stuck in the humdrum world of kitchen sink realism. Thirty years on they sound as enamoured with the idea of club music as a form of beautiful release as they ever did. They're dreamers, Neil and Chris, and a nation so resolutely wallowing in a kind of teabag-stained reality needs them, now more than ever.

And that, readers, is why the Pet Shop Boys are the best British band of all time.

Follow Josh on Twitter